Housing, School Choice, and Racial Segregation

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Adam Bloom

Educ 300

Housing, School Choice, and Racial Segregation

In 1954, The Supreme Court of the United States of America made one of the most groundbreaking and influential decisions in their history.  They ruled that racially segregated public schools, that had previously been considered “separate but equal,” were “inherently unequal (Brown vs. Board).”  Many thought that the end of De Jure segregation meant that American public schools would become fully integrated, but even to this day, this goal remains largely unachieved.  Those who were working towards integration in schools found that most neighborhoods were segregated, and in a system in which a majority of public school students attend district schools based on the town they live in, it proved hard to tackle the issue of integration without first desegregating housing.  While significant progress has been made towards racial integration in public schools, it remains an unfinished process, and has suffered many setbacks, and has fallen victim to a pattern of resegregation during the 1990’s due to a rise in housing segregation in the previous decades (Trends in School Economic Segregation, 1970 to 2010).  The main factor that has prevented racial integration from truly occurring in American public schools is the fact that neighborhoods all over the country, in every state and city, remain alarming segregated.  When the Brown vs Board of Education ruling occurred, the legal right of federal and state governments to enforce segregated education in public schools was revoked.  This meant the end of De Jure segregation, but to this day, many public schools remain segregated, leaving the country in a state of De Facto segregation.  Most American public school students attend their local neighborhood schools, and when students live in segregated neighborhoods, they inherently end up attending segregated schools.  When offered choices in the schools that parents can send their children to, an effort many thought would expedite the process, parents began placing their children in schools with other kids who looked like them.  This trend of school choice failing to address segregation has been in effect since the early days after Brown, and still continues today with options such as Charter schools.  Many factors can be attributed to the lack of full integration since the Brown decision, and the trend of resegregation during the 1990’s.  The main barrier to integration in American public schools is the segregation of housing, perpetuated by efforts of white and affluent families to distance themselves from racial heterogeneity by fleeing cities for suburbs that lack diversity, and using school choice to push their children into less diverse schools.

From 1964 to 1988, black students in the South who attended majority white schools rose from 2.3% to 43.5%, indicating a massive scale of integration in the region after the initial pushback from the Brown decision (Fighting School Resegregation). In 1968, 78% of black students attended virtually all minority schools in the South. In 1988, right before the boom in resegregation during the 1990’s, this number dropped drastically to 24%. By 2001, after the 1990’s, the number had risen back up to 41%. In the Northeast during the same period, black students who attended virtually all minority schools rose from 42% in 1968 to to 48% in 1988 and then to 52% in 2001 (Civil Rights Project). This suggests that, while integration efforts between the 1960’s and the 1990’s were successful in the South, the Northeast was gradually becoming more segregated. Until the 1990’s, the South was home to the greatest declines in segregation since the Brown ruling.  Despite this, the South experienced the largest increase in segregation for black students over the course of the 1990’s (American Educational Research Association). Over the course of the decade, the South had experienced an increase in black students attending virtually all minority schools of 17%, while the Northeast experienced a rise of only 3% (Civil Rights Project). The 1990’s were not only a period of resegregation in the South, but this trend occurred nationally as well. During this critical decade, the percentage of blacks who were attending majority white schools went down 13%, reaching its lowest point since 1968. In 2000, 17% of black students attended majority white schools. At the the same time, whites had become the most segregated racial group, attending, on average, a public school that was 80% white. By this time, the average black student was attending a school that was 33% white (Fighting School Resegregation). Black students found themselves increasingly in schools with higher minority populations and lower white populations, while white students were being segregated at alarming rates into all virtually all white schools throughout the course of the 1990s. By the end of the decade, white, latino, and black students found themselves segregated from their peers of other races at alarming rates.

The cause of this shocking rise in segregation of schools, and particularly of white students, has been widely debated. One theory that attempts to explain the high levels of segregation in public schools today blames socioeconomic barriers that prevent low-income minority families from purchasing homes in high-income districts, therefore creating a metaphorical wall that prevents them from integrating into other neighborhoods with different racial makeups. On average, black and latino families make less money per year than white families (Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014). This fact is used to back up the claim that black and latino families face a socio economic barrier that prevents them from being able to move into whatever neighborhood they want.  Because high income neighborhoods have schools that, on average, perform better than low income schools, this lack of choice in housing prevents minority students from integrating with the wealthier and white students in nearby neighborhoods (Money, Race and Success).  While this barrier most definitely exists, it cannot be used to explain in full why blacks and whites live in different neighborhoods. If the lack of affordability in housing for black and latino families was the main cause for segregated housing, then it could be expected that levels of segregation within a particular income bracket would be lower than in the overall population. Instead, poor whites and poor blacks often do not live in the same neighborhoods. The same can be said for middle-income and, especially, upper-income blacks and whites (Racial Housing Segregation and Concentration in the Central Cities). Therefore, segregation in housing and education must largely be produced by choices made by people when choosing which neighborhoods to live in and what schools to attend.

In the 1960’s, a few years after the Brown ruling, an increase in black populations in cities led to an exodus of whites flocking into the suburbs. The Kerner Report, commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson, revealed that whites were fleeing for the suburbs, and excluding blacks from “employment, housing and educational opportunities” in their towns. The report goes on to claim that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white (The Atlantic).”  This conclusion alludes to the separate living spaces inhabited by different racial groups; blacks in cities, and whites in the suburbs. As suburban neighborhoods became more integrated with an influx of more affluent minorities coming from the inner-cities starting in the 1970’s, white families began to move further out from the city. When this occurred, they were usually not replaced by white families due to a lack of interest by whites of living in diverse towns, therefore, since 1970, many previously integrated neighborhoods have experienced a trend of resegregation (The Washington Post). During this period, some of the most rapid school resegregation took place in suburban neighborhoods where white families were leaving for even more racially homogenous neighborhoods (A Multiracial Society with Segregated Schools).  During the course of the 1990’s, the population of white metropolitan public school students fell from 63% to 56% (American Educational Research Association). This is the product of white flight from cities as a result of an influx of minority populations over the previous decades.  As the inner city population began to bleed into the suburbs, whites started moving further out into the fringes of cities into “all-white neighborhoods, affluent gated communities, or unincorporated housing developments (The Atlantic).” By doing so, white families are forcing themselves into racially homogenized neighborhoods.  With the reverse diversification of these neighborgoods, it is no surprise that white students have become the most segregated racial group.  They have been fleeing integrated living spaces and, as a result, their schools reflect the makeup of the towns they run away to.

In a study by Maria Krysan at the University of Illinois, white viewers were asked to watched short clips of scenes from identical neighborhoods.  The white subjects were more likely to rate the neighborhood with white actors portraying the residents positively, while they reacted negatively to the same scenes in the same neighborhood when the scene was played out with black actors (The Washington Post). This study suggests that whites have a negative attitude towards living in neighborhoods that are not racially compromised of a vast majority of those who are like themselves.  When whites move into more racially segregated towns to distance themselves from their black and low income neighbors, the vacancies they leave are rarely filled by whites, as whites are no longer choosing to live in integrated communities (The Washington Post).  Therefore, as time goes on, previously integrated communities become more and more segregated.  A realtor working in a suburb of Chicago recounts how she has encountered this phenomenon of purposeful segregation by whites. She consistently meets clients who immediately make it clear that they will not live on the eastern side of town, the part of the suburb that borders a poor black neighborhood (The Washington Post). These white families are making a conscious effort to keep themselves as distanced from different racial and socioeconomic groups as possible.  Ferguson, Missouri offers insight into a specific town where white flight has occurred over the last twenty years. In that twenty year period, the racial composition of Ferguson changed from 25% black to 67% black. As this change has occurred over time, whites have mostly left Ferguson for suburban communities that are more racially segregated and further from the center of St. Louis (American Sociological Association). Although segregation decreased within Ferguson, this was simply the result of a massive exodus of white families into racially homogenized communities elsewhere.  Another study involved an interview with a black mother in Mobile, Alabama.  When asked what type of neighborhood she wanted to live in, she said that living in an all black neighborhood was “trouble,” and she went on to say that “if you’ve got a mixture it’s less trouble (Why Poor People Move).”  When asked about the advantages of an all black neighborhood, her answer was simple; “No advantage at all (Why Poor People Move).”  This mother revealed an attitude that has been studied amongst minority racial groups whose preferences are geared to integrated neighborhoods.  They often do not seek the homogeneity sought out by white families.

The introduction of school choice options in the South after the Brown decision resulted in a failure at desegregation as few blacks enrolled in white schools, and virtually no whites enrolled in black schools.  A lack of choice to integrate in these early years of school choice by black families can be attributed to factors such as a distrust for white schools and communities and a pride in their own schools, viewed as an achievement accomplished through their own willpower and work.  The choice to remain integrated by white families was accomplished through violent attacks, threats, and intimidation meant to scare black students from integrating into their previously all white schools (Cecelski, 9).  When school choice options, such as charter schools, appeared they hoped to be centers of racial and socioeconomic integration (Kahlenberg, 13). Despite this, families of all races are often choosing schools based on racial composition rather than academic quality of the school.  Unfortunately, charter schools have become home to some of the most deeply segregated public schools.  According to a study by researchers at UCLA, charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation (Choice Without Equity).  The cause of this segregation can be partly explained by the fact that parents are, in many cases, choosing to only apply to charter schools where a majority of the students are of their own race (National Education Policy Center).  Middle school parents were 12% more likely to choose a school where the race of their child was represented by at least 20% of the student body than a school on a similar academic scale where their child’s race made up 10% of the student body (Slate).  Parents of all races have preferences to send their children to schools that are racially similar to themselves when given the choice. This being said, studies indicate that white and high income applicants to charter schools had the strongest preferences that their children stay in schools that are racially and socioeconomically homogenized.  When the proportion of latino and black students in a school increases, white parents become less likely to apply to these schools. This is untrue for black and latino families, suggesting that school choice is the method by which white and affluent families perpetuate racial segregation in schools (Scholars Strategy Network).  The 2000’s were a period of sharp increases in the segregation of the extremely wealthy across school districts, indicating that affluent families, not just white families, are choosing to attend schools that isolate themselves from those different in different wealth brackets than them (Trends in School Economic Segregation, 1970 to 2010).  School choice, originally intended to speed up integration, has become a tool of affluent and white families to further segregation and keep their children in racially and socioeconomically  homogenized schools.  

After the Brown ruling, there was hope that American public schools would be filled with children that represented the actual demographics of the country.  More than half a century later, this dream remains unrealized, and the process towards integration remains unfinished.  In a system of neighborhood schools, segregated housing perpetuated by the choices of whites to live in homogenous neighborhoods prevents schools from replicating the diversity of the nation, but rather forces them to represent demographics that are the result of individual choice.  In hopes of combating this roadblock, school choice options have evolved over the last half century in hopes of tackling a problem that wouldn’t seem to go away.  Original forms of school choice in Southern states were thwarted by threatening whites who intimidated blacks from taking advantage of integrated schools.  In more modern times, school choice options such as charter schools have failed to live up to their promise of integration, as families, and particularly white and affluent families, are choosing to apply only to schools whose student bodies look like their children.  Integration efforts since the Brown ruling have not been a complete failure.  Particularly in the South, schools saw massive increases in racial integration in the few decades after the landmark case.  Despite this, trends towards housing segregation caused by white flight from increasingly minority cities into racially homogenized suburbs during the 1970’s and 1980’s introduced an era of resegregation during the 1990’s.  As housing became segregated, education followed suite.  It is not completely clear why this trend of resegregation waited until 1990 to occur, as housing segregation and white flight became significant issues in the 1970’s.  Further research into why this delay occurred may offer clearer insight into how trends in housing segregation correlate to trends in school segregation over long periods of time.  Housing segregation, School choice, and School segregation are separate entities, but one cannot be understood without first understanding the others.  To finish the job that began more than half a century ago in the Supreme Court, the reality of purposeful segregation by whites in homogeneous neighborhoods and racially motivated choices about which schools their children will attend must be confronted, and these practices must be challenged by the prospect of a society in which education truly is a place of equal opportunity for all.

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